In 2007, Adam Braun started working at Bain & Company, one of the world’s leading consulting firms. His plan was simple: work hard for a couple years, become a hedge-fund guy, make a lot of money, then retire and focus on his passion for helping others.
However, during his time traveling around the world, a life-changing experience led him to start a side-project called Pencils of Promise, a non-profit organization that aims to deliver quality education to every child in the world. As his new project was growing, Adam decided to go back to his original job while trying to balance PoP at the same time. As time went on, PoP started taking up more of his time to the point where his colleagues took notice, forcing him to make a choice: keep going where the money is or follow his passion. He decided to quit and focus on PoP full-time.
Since launching in 2008, PoP has built more than 150 schools all over Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as given over 10 million educational hours to children in poverty. Adam Braun not only founded the organization with $25 dollars, but has revolutionized the not-for-profit industry by creating the “for purpose” model, a new hybrid that mixes non-profit idealism with for-profit business principles. With these accomplishments, Adam was featured on the Forbes’ “30 Under 30 List” in 2012.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Adam Braun over email. Here, we discuss how working in finance has helped him build PoP, how one can find his/her passion, and his recently published book “The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change.”
Tell us some of the things you learned in Finance, that you’ve applied to building Pencils of Promise.
“When you have a background in finance, you become committed to clear and undeniable data that demonstrates results. Often in the nonprofit space, people are satisfied with photos and powerful stories being enough, but from working in finance, I believe in the power of numbers and am far more committed to demonstrating great results for our students that purely show beautiful imagery to our supporters. My commitment is ultimately to create an organization that enables both, but my finance background has me committed to results.”
Finding your passion is important in success. You cover this a little in your book, but what general steps can someone take to discover their true purpose in life?
“Years ago, I asked a young boy begging on the streets of India what he wanted most in the world. His answer was simple: “a pencil.” I reached into my backpack and handed him mine, and immediately saw his eyes light up with possibility. This moment instantaneously unlocked my sense of purpose, and since that moment I have been completely invested in the global education crisis. I think there are three steps for someone to discover their sense of purpose, which are all chapters of my book, “The Promise of a Pencil.” First, get out of your comfort zone, because going beyond the places that make you feel safe allow you to discover who you are and what makes you feel most alive. Second, speak the language of the person you seek to become. By changing your words, you are able to change your worth, and speaking as your aspirational self will push you to become better and better. Finally, make your life a story worth telling. You only get one chance at this life, and the most important thing you’ll leave behind is the legacy of the life you lived. I think it should be a story that you are proud to have others tell.”
A lot of young entrepreneurs I meet seem be “all about the money” until they realize that this is a terrible direction to go. Were you ever motivated by just the money at any point in your life?
“As I teenager, I was extremely motivated by the pursuit of money, but when I started to spend time in the developing world as a backpacker, I gained an appreciation for the fulfillment that’s derived from a sense of purpose. I don’t fault anyone whose main pursuit is personal wealth, but my strongly held belief, and through several life experiences I have come to understand, is that at one time an individual’s physical possessions will fade away and the only thing that will remain is the legacy of the impact of their life on others. When I think about living a rich life, the things I value the most are the footprints for good that I’m able to facilitate for others.”
Tell me the most useful class you took in college and why.
“I took a class called Engine 90 with Professor Barrett Haleztine at Brown. In this class, I learned about different entrepreneurs and businesses every week, and our big project was to create a business plan for our own entrepreneurial venture. This class gave me the earliest learnings about management, leadership, and the relentless conviction needed to succeed in an entrepreneurial environment. I credit Professor Haleztine for steering me along the path that I am on today.”
Tell me a memorable failure and how that changed your life.
“In my book, there is a chapter titled “Fess Up to Your Failures” that describes one of my most memorable failures. In the early stages of PoP, two of our team members were robbed in Guatemala, and sent me an email asking if they should file something with the organization. I had interpreted this as them asking for reimbursement, and sent an email back that stated it was not PoP’s responsibility to reimburse the cost of their phones and wallets. The next email from them clarified that they were not asking for a reimbursement, but rather filing an incident report, and how hurt and disappointed they were by my email. I had wrongly responded as a CEO by addressing financial concerns without focusing on the well-beings of my employees, so I apologized for my mistake and the organization immediately established contingency plans to help us prepare for, and, when necessary, deal with the unexpected. We created safety and policy guidelines and established emergency protocols for our staff so that any issue could be resolved immediately and with the full backing of the organization. The biggest opportunities for growth are not found in the midst of success, but in the methods through which we address failure.”
You talk about how philanthropic organizations can actually do more as for-profits rather than non-profits. Can you break down briefly some of the reasons why?
“In some cases, for-profits can absolutely create greater social impact than non-profit organizations because of their ability to align with market interests, but there are certain areas where non-profits are more effective. However, I think that evaluating companies only as “for-profit” and “non-profit” does a disservice to the emerging landscape of business. I believe that we need to add a second axis, where for-profit vs. non-profit defines a company’s ability to truly profit in monetary terms, and “for-purpose” vs. “non-purpose” reflects the social benefit they provide to society, which in my opinion is much more important than the “profit” axis. These two axes represent a true depiction of modern business, and what I believe you’ll see is that “for-purpose” companies are those that are succeeding in making money and solving social issues.
I’m sure people are always asking you for advice- what are some things you see that young entrepreneurs today just don’t get?
“There is an outside perception that entrepreneurs have a big break, one achievement happens and suddenly everything else seems to fall into place as a result. In reality, there are thousands of small, medium, and large wins that add up to the point they have gotten to. There were times when I was launching Pencils of Promise where I felt that one thing was going to put us in a different sphere, but the reality is that we have had a lot of success and a fair amount of setbacks over the years, and the significance of the failures is just as important as the successes. There is not one thing that leads to where we are, which is why relentless conviction and an unshakable work ethic are necessary for young entrepreneurs because there is no one big break.”
Tell us a little bit about your new book The Promise of a Pencil that recently came out. What types of people should read it and what message do you aim to put out?
“The Promise of a Pencil is the story of how I founded Pencils of Promise with $25, and how the organization has since built 200 schools around the world. It is written in a style that is more than just storytelling, but also very much a how-to that provides the guiding steps for anyone to live a life of both success and significance.
Fortunately the book debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list and is really resonating with people seeking to uncover the steps to live their own extraordinary journey as well.”
Buy Adam’s new book: The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change & follow him @AdamBraun
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